When Steve Modlin was in college in the early ‘80s, he would spend time in the kitchen at his dorm making barbeque sauce and fudge during the holidays. “I would give that out as Christmas presents,” he says. “I couldn’t afford real presents.”
Like many other products created with loving intentions, Steve’s creations were a hit with family and friends who said, “You ought to sell that.” He toyed with the idea over the years and began making the sauce in larger quantities in the kitchen of a bakery owned by a neighbor. But he was limited, due to the demands of career, marriage, and raising three kids, on how much time he could devote. “It was a thing on the side and it started growing,” he says. “We became an official business about 1994 or ’95. We still had 60- to 70-hour a week day jobs.”
They lived in the Triangle area where Steve was an SBI agent primarily working homicides. His wife, Cheryl, worked in Wake County and transferred to Western North Carolina as a parole officer. “Everything I tried to do was always interrupted with a phone call,” he remembers, but that changed four years ago when he got rid of the day job and focused full-time on running his sauce business.
Now based in Columbus, they currently offer Old Mule BBQ Dipping Sauce for sale in three flavors: Original, Mustard, and Hot. “We actually have a fourth type. It’s called a Sissy Sauce. We’ve been making it for the restaurant world for a number of years. It’s the same, but without any spice at all. We’re now getting it labeled for resale. We also have a vinegar-based recipe that we’ve never produced. We don’t have the space right now, but we’re working on it.”
Steve is very mindful about growing his business in a responsible manner. “You don’t want to make promises you can’t keep. You have to be careful what you commit to. We joke that we’re taking over the world one jar at a time, but only to the extent we can absorb it, handle it, and do it responsibly.”
“It’s not designed to impress you with how hot it is. You can taste the flavor and still taste your food.”
Right now his attention is on plans for a new production building on their family farm. “What we’re working on is a building that is expandable and allows us to grow,” he says. “I’m working on a floor plan to get the guts in, but still be able to grow out, and trying to figure out what this will cost us. We have a real viable business, but we’re not big enough to have financial legs under us. To be a truly productive business, we do need to grow some more.”
The growth they have already enjoyed has been impressive. They maintain the current demand to stock the product in 1200 outlets nationwide.
“We’re in almost all of the Food Lions in Western North Carolina,” he says, and also rattles off a list of other grocery stores in North Carolina who carry it: Ingles, Harris Teeter, Lowe’s Foods, Piggly Wiggly, and Publix. “We’ve also got about 30 outlets in California and some in Delaware, Northern Virginia, and Boulder, Colorado.”
Sometimes it’s a huge surprise to him when he finds out his product is being sold in places he never imagined.
“We had a booth at the Asheville Wine and Food Festival,” says Steve, “and I was talking with a young guy who just came back from Australia. I told him we weren’t large enough to be in Australia, but that we are in Maryland, where he is from. The next day I was looking online, and lo and behold, we do have a place selling it in Australia. They are getting it through a distributor—they don’t always tell us where it goes!”
The original flavor is the most widely available, but he says the mustard is coming on strong in demand, and adds that the hot really isn’t a hot sauce, just a hotter version of the others. “That disappoints some people who really like hot foods, but it’s not designed to impress you with how hot it is. You can taste the flavor and still taste your food.”
The versatility of the sauce is one of the main things he tries to get customers to embrace. “They can put it on a turkey sandwich instead of mayo, use like mustard on a sandwich, make brisket chicken in the oven, chicken on a grill, smoky joe’s in a crockpot, and nachos in the oven,” he says. “We make venison jerky with it, and my son puts it in omelets.”
The product is available for sale on their website, and they ship orders all over the country as well as to APO/military addresses overseas.
“This year has been a good year,” Steve says. “Just about everything we’ve delved into has been positive. It’s very exciting after all these years to have some focus and see it happening. We are cautiously optimistic. You pinch yourself and go back to mopping the floor. That’s the world of small business—big plans and a mop bucket.”
For Old Mule BBQ retail locations and online store, as well as an extensive list of Modlin’s recipes, visit www.oldmule.com.
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